(Penelope Corfield and Justin Champion at the National Civil War Centre, Newark. Saturday 3 November 2018.)
The late Christopher Hill (1912-2003) was the historian that triggered my interest in the seventeenth century. For that, I have a lot to thank him for.
It’s been a long-running joke here that I tried everything possible to deter myself from a future that would include publishing in literary history. I dropped history at the age of 14 and later failed a mock A-level exam on the seventeenth-century poet, Andrew Marvell. Such moments miraculously spurred my later endeavours when they could so easily have spurned them.
It was only at university that my confidence to explore and appreciate historical context returned. Once assignments could reflect our own interests rather than those set for us, the landscape became very different. Christopher Hill was, in his own way, the centre of that personal revolution – by being at the heart of the English Revolution. It was Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down that sparked my interest in the calamitous, dangerous world that Marvell inhabited.
The place of Marvell within his historical environment would become cemented for me by the wonderful work of Blair Worden, and subsequently by Kevin Sharpe, who shared Hill’s infectious enthusiasm for the variety of literary forms and artefacts that expanded our interpretation of cultural history. But once into my master’s year (2006), the first person I returned to was Hill, knowing he would spark my interest anew and prompt me to read productively. His Intellectual Origins of the Puritan Revolution, one of a sequence of books on Puritanism and revolutions from the 1960s, led my curiosity towards books by Ann Hughes, Derek Hirst and John Adamson. It was a positive direction of travel.
As someone without a formal historical background, the professionalisation of my interest in such an eventful, challenging and daunting period of history relied on a figure like Christopher Hill. To attend a free weekend memorial lecture that connected Hill with Marvell and the dissenting tradition was a fabulous (and increasingly rare) opportunity.
“No fuss” motto
Penelope Corfield, the niece of Christopher Hill, offered a personal perspective on the historian. She spoke warmly of Hill as a solid Yorkshireman of simple tastes (rare photographs show Hill wearing very similar blazers, decades apart), in line with the family motto, ‘no fuss’.
A young Hill lost his faith in his late teens, but not before the radical preacher T.S. Gregory at York Central Methodist Chapel had inspired him to strive for equality as a principal worldview.
He became drawn to Marxism and to sympathise with radicals, Corfield says, because he knew that battling injustices and bringing about equality was hard to achieve. The extent of Gregory’s influence on Hill only became evident through dedications to the preacher in his books, she added.
Hill’s membership of the Russian Communist party is more commonly known – but that was another movement that was to wane, following numerous resignations in the mid-1950s. This fed into Hill’s passion for history, Corfield explained, as he actively experienced the excitement and pitfalls of political struggles that had failed.
“Quintessence of arbitrary Malice”
In March 1670, Parliament devised a new law against religious dissent that became the Second Conventicle Act. Andrew Marvell, often a lone voice against tyranny and Anglican persecution, termed the act ‘the Quintessence of arbitrary Malice’. To Justin Champion, there can be no better phrase to reflect the critical response to Hill’s work.
Somehow, I never managed to meet Champion, who was Head of History at Royal Holloway during my brief spell there as a MPhil student (2009-10). But I was struck by his impassioned defence of Hill, as he considered through Hill the role of the historian.
In 1970, 300 years after the Second Conventicle Act, Hill became one of the leading exponents of the new discipline of intellectual history (or the history of ideas). He celebrated Marvell’s public service, not only in the attempts to prevent Milton’s execution (if, indeed, Marvell was involved), but also his transformation from poet to pamphleteer, where Marvell espoused liberty of conscience and freedom of thought.
Champion still feels a palpable sense of injustice at the responses of revisionist historians to Hill’s works, and in particular their failure to recognise the value of dissenting voices. As an undergraduate, he boycotted lectures by John Morrill in response to a savage attack on Hill that left him seething.
Revisionists baulked at the ‘hard left of Marxism’, he says, which became a ‘nasty little phrase’. But Hill understood that ideas gain currency once they are ‘weaponised’ by social and political circumstances. And prominent, noisy, influential groups were not being adequately represented.
Hill was not particularly interested in theory, says Champion, but he did theorise about the purpose of historians. An early and rarely-read work of Hill’s on ‘Marxism and History’ for Modern Quarterly (1948) notes that: ‘the historian himself must have a vision of society and the social process as a whole: he must have a philosophy’. Theory must be translated into practice by people.
Hill’s foray into literature, though an advance for the New Historicism, attracted further robust critique for reading Milton in terms of the class struggle. But in Marvell, Hill found a figure still enshrined in literary circles as a metaphysical poet, and who is only now beginning to receive scholarly attention to the entirety of his canon.
Here, we should posthumously recognise Hill’s generosity of spirit as a historian, says Champion. His books provoke debate and offer opportunities and ideas for scholars to explore, unlike many scholars who tend to preciously guard ideas and reserve them for future projects.
Through the dissenting tradition, Hill anticipates a project that has still not been fully explored, adds Champion, which is to put resistance at the centre of a post-Restoration historical synthesis (perhaps a sequel to Nicholas McDowell’s The English Radical Imagination).
I think we see embers of this already with recent studies by Stephen Bardle and, more prominently, in the trailblazing work by Steph Coster. With the quadricentenary of Marvell’s birth barely two years away, it feels like a fuller picture is finally beginning to taking shape. Undoubtedly, Hill has played a role.
Endnote: like for like.
To end, Penelope Corfield confirmed something that had become increasingly evident – and of great interest to me.
Hill was a very private person, she said. He did not like being photographed and suffered his share of anguish. He was a straightforward and fair man, who was very interested in tutoring young people and hearing their views. He was reserved at first but could be witty and amusing.
I was reminded of the description provided of Marvell by John Aubrey: of a man ‘in his conversation very modest’ but with the potential to be jovial in the right company. I’ve always seen glimpses of Marvell in myself (even if not these traits specifically) and can’t help wondering if Hill did the same.
Corfield says his message today, if alive, would be, “don’t lose faith in the spirit of equality”. On this, the final day of a turbulent American midterm election – perhaps the most important for the spirit of equality in a generation – it’s a fitting endnote to an inspiring and principled man.